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Sanibel Island looks to preserve its ‘soul’

February 24, 2013 at 08:04 PM

The Associated Press

SANIBEL, Fla. (AP) — Bordered by tangled mangroves on one side and saltwater shallows on the other, this winding sand track is one of Lee County’s most singular roads.

It leads to an equally singular place: Sanibel’s Woodring Point, home to former CIA chief Porter Goss, renowned photographer Charlie McCullough and descendants of island pioneers who claimed it in the 1800s.

The Woodring family, whose late matriarch, Esperanza, was a legendary fishing guide, is negotiating with nonprofit and county agencies to sell 6½ acres and a handful of vintage buildings for about $6 million. The buy would protect some of the island’s last undeveloped land, connect key natural areas where at least a dozen federally and state-listed species live and preserve the historic homestead.

“Woodring Point is part of the soul of the island,” said retired Sanibel physician Tom Hanson, who with his wife, Laura, gave $25,000 this month to the Ding Darling Wildlife Society, the nonprofit group that supports the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of the partners in the potential land buy. Their gift brought the group’s preservation campaign total to $844,000.

The goal is to raise $1.8 million by September, with Lee County’s Conservation 20/20 program chipping in about $3 million. It would be the first 20/20 purchase on the island, said conservation lands program coordinator Lynda Thompson. “And a big, giant plus for us is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has offered to manage our portion because it’s very, very expensive to do that.”

The deal hasn’t progressed to the point of a vote by the Lee County Commission, but if it does, John Manning, whose District 1 includes the island, said “It sounds like a good deal to me and a good thing to pursue.”

Negotiations and appraisals are ongoing, but society director Birgie Vertesch’s ballpark estimate is about $6 million.

If the purchase goes through, the refuge will manage both parcels, which together form a key piece in the conservation land jigsaw puzzle and would re-establish an intact natural system on Woodring Point. In return, property owners Jean and Ralph Woodring, who run the island’s Bait Box and sell live shrimp from their dock, would be able to keep living in their house for the rest of their lives. Once they died, the home would be preserved and opened to visitors as a historic attraction.

“It’s such a special, special place,” Jean said on a recent morning, her gaze sweeping from her century-old two-story frame house to the glittering bay. “We really want this to happen.”

So does next-door-neighbor Goss, whose $750,000 homesite was carved in 1998 from Woodring land. “Just look,” he says from his rooftop aerie, directing a visitor’s attention from osprey nests to the long dock and the calm water beyond. “There’s nowhere else like this.”

It’s a remnant of island life before the causeway, when most Sanibel famililes were hardy fisherfolk like the Woodrings and before it was discovered by well-heeled Northerners, many of whom brought a keen preservation ethic. More than 60 percent of the island, population about 6,000, is conservation land.

If the deal doesn’t go through, and the property’s not preserved, the land is zoned for as many as five homes, each allowed a dock built in Tarpon Bay, which shelters more than 80 animal and plant species, said society president John McCabe.

“Construction of new homes and the increase in boat traffic would have significant impact on the habitat of both the land and marine species that live or feed on or near this property,” McCabe said. “Tarpon Bay is the water opening to the refuge.”

The bay’s warm waters, which range from amber to turquoise, are full of rookery islands, grass flats and a channel used by commuting manatees, one of many endangered species that rely on it.

So does the rare smalltooth sawfish, which grows to 16 feet and gives birth to live babies, who spend their infancy in the safety of the shallows and mangrove roots. “Tarpon Bay is one of their key nurseries,” McCabe said.

Saving it makes perfect sense for an island with a reputation for a strong conservation ethic, Vertesch said. “We continue to value our lands and waters ... We are doing our part today (as) people like Teddy Roosevelt, ‘Ding’ Darling and so many others before us did generations ago.”

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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